Our first trip to Italy began in Venice. This one ends here. There isn’t a city or stop we’ve been to on this trip in Italy that we haven’t loved, but I think Venice is my favorite. It can be hot, it can be crowded (very crowded), it can smell, it’s expensive but it is so unique and special. Many places market themselves as “the Venice of…” but there’s no comparison and there’s only one Venice.
You can never see the madness of the Grand Canal for the first time again. But you can still be in awe of it, every time. Delivery boats cruise down with their cargo, water taxis thread between vaporettos (water buses), private boats weave through and gondoliers fight the chop to push their tourist passengers along. It’s chaos and it’s breathtaking. Hoards line the railings of the Rialto Bridge to capture selfies and admire the scene below.
Our first time here, we stayed near San Marco’s square. This time, we had an Airbnb in Santa Croce, away from the hoards and chaos and where Venetians live their lives. This trip to Italy has been mostly about melding into the populace, going to the markets and living where the real residents live. A small canal cut under a tiny bridge right below our terrace. Gondolas quietly slipped by below, far from the lunacy of the gondola rides down the grand canal. Bell towers chimed to announce the hours. We spent our evenings sitting on the terrace as Spring’s lengthening days came to a close.
To experience Venice, we think, this is the ticket. Get away from the masses. Sure, we hit the San Marco square and crossed the Rialto when we had to, but tucking into the lives here and ducking through narrow alleys, over small bridges and getting lost is the best way to feel Venice. And you will get lost. Even the best senses of direction end up at a loss at times when the GPS fails you and the turn you were sure was right dead ends at a canal or a wall. But that’s part of the charm. And it’s an island after all, so how lost can you get? Very.
Venice was founded at the end of the Roman Empire when the local residents from the mainland were pushed to the island by Germanic and Hun marauders and hoards in 584 AD. It’s wealth and influence grew as it became a major market for trade across the Mediterranean, Middle East, Northern Africa and Europe. Silk, spices, gems, salt, you name it, if it was traded, it was traded here at the site of the current fish market and its surrounding neighborhood. Its prominence in the trade routes, imports and exports led to Venetian wealth which remains evident in the Venetian buildings to this day. With trade, came the plagues which wiped out a great number of Venetians, up to a third of the population at a time. With the removal of the Doges, who led Venice, and the influx of Austro-Hungarian control of this area came paved roads over some of the canals and made Venice less muddy for those who didn’t have boats and interconnected Venice’s many islands for all of the people, including the poor. Venice embraced the renaissance and became a center for theater, culture and music and debauchery. By the 18th century it was the Las Vegas of Europe. What happened in Venice, stayed in Venice. The roots of all of this history is still present today and gives it this kind of magical charm.
Rialto fish market on a Saturday
Much of the above, we learned from Federico, whose tour we booked on Airbnb Experiences. We’ve had a hit or miss record with Airbnb Experiences. Mostly, they’re good, but the description doesn’t always match the actual experience and it’s often been conducted by a different person than advertised, which, while they’ve still been good leaves you with a taste in your mouth that these aren’t small businesses, but corporate travel people booking tours with whomever they can find. Not so with Federico. We booked his “Secrets of Venice” tour of San Polo which starts at the Rialto bridge and goes the opposite direction of all the other tours starting there. We won’t give away his secrets but suffice it to say that it’s educational, entertaining and you’ll learn about the history of Venice, all of its history in commerce, including the oldest profession, the source of Venetian blondes and all about masks. If you are here and want to get off the beaten path (or on, he does other tours), check him out.
We did take a day trip over to Burano Island on one of our days here. The Vaporetto line 12 takes you there and to Murano (if you want to see some glass blown), Mazzorto (also connected to Burano via a small foot bridge) and Treporti. I’d read that Burano was a “small and quiet fishing village with colorful buildings”. It was all of the above except for quiet. When we got on the #12 boat I assumed most people were big glass blowing fans. I was wrong. On an unseasonably hot and humid Saturday in May, the masses were headed to Burano. Without a lunch reservation, we struck out a couple of times before arriving at Osteria Al Museo across from the creepily quiet (but perhaps understandably so) lace museum. It was delicious and we arrived just ahead of our fellow reservation-less riders to enjoy some squid ink pasta and a chocolate mouse for Melissa’s birthday.
Neighboring Mazzorto is Burano chill times 100. Very quiet and sleepy with less brightly painted homes, we made our way there after lunch to wander around and catch the number 12 boat before the Burano stop piled on so we could score a seat at the back of the boat. We ended up riding it past Burano, to Treporti and back but this happy little accident was an inexpensive way to cruise the lagoon and check out several of its islands.
Venice has this charm that is hard to describe. Carnivale masks stare out at you from shop windows. The daily fish market (except Sundays and Mondays) can be smelled from several narrow alleyways away. San Marco’s square is packed in the daytime, romantic in the evening and eerily quiet early in the morning. The lagoon’s green water shines in the afternoon sun. They deal with real threats of flood and it’s associated problems of mold or salt decaying the bricks of the structures and it could all get worse if the sea level rises. But Venice is so different, so unique and so special and unlike any other place I’ve ever been.